COMMENTARY: Business leaders, educators and policy leaders share the belief that one of the best ways to build a productive and prosperous society is to start early in building children’s foundation for learning, health and positive behavior.
The science underlying this belief is solid: Evidence at the intersection of neurobiology, developmental science and economics converges on preschool education as the single most promising strategy for ensuring that this foundation is sturdy, inclusive and cost-effective.
Why is this the case? The brain’s basic architecture and circuitry develop rapidly during the early childhood years. Experiences in pre-K aimed at addressing the consequences of adversity and providing environments rich in language and playful cognitive stimulation can strengthen the critical neural networks that power up early learning.
Pre-K programs also afford wonderful opportunities to support young children’s social development, including empathy and tolerance in our increasingly diverse society.
This evidence includes research conducted in New Mexico, which showed that children who attended state-funded pre-K programs were significantly more likely to perform at grade level in reading and math through elementary school, and significantly less likely to be placed in special education or retained in grade.
My own research in Tulsa, Oklahoma, confirms these findings and extends them into middle school. It finds that the strongest benefits accrue to dual-language learners and to children who have likely experienced adverse early life experiences that seriously compromise brain and behavioral development.
Two recent national reports have also confirmed that investments in pre-K education consistently demonstrate returns in the form of higher achievement, lower grade retention, reduced if not eliminated income-related achievement gaps, and associated cost savings.
The message is clear: Pre-K education offers a strong pathway towards success for New Mexico’s children. Fortunately, the state has a solid base to build upon, ranking 16th in the nation on 4-year olds’ pre-K participation rates and 20th on spending, as well as on requirements that all pre-K programs meet quality standards.
Why not aim to be first in the nation? Constructive next steps would involve:
- forging a successful collaboration with New Mexico’s Head Start program, as has been done in Tulsa;
- ensuring that the future pre-K teaching workforce is populated with talented young adults who are supported with a living wage and on-going opportunities for professional development; and
- continuing commitment to identifying the key ingredients of successful programs and with rigorous evaluations of impact.
The State of New Mexico should be very proud of its accomplishments in early education. Now it is time to take these accomplishments to a new level, with added investments focused on moving from 70 percent to 100 percent of participating school districts in collaboration with Head Start and with a continued focus on high-quality experiences for young children informed by ongoing program evaluation.
With the combined engagement, energy and willpower of business leaders, educators, policymakers and scientists alike, this strategy will move the needle on child well-being in New Mexico as it has done in other locales across the nation.
Deborah Phillips is a psychology professor at Georgetown University. She currently serves on the National Board for Education Sciences (U.S. Department of Education) and the Research Advisory Board of the Committee on Economic Development. Her research on the developmental impacts of early education – child care, pre-K and Head Start – has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Child Care Bureau and numerous national foundations, as well as recognized at White House conferences and the State of the Union address. Phillips has a home in Santa Fe and was a visiting scholar at the University of New Mexico in 2016. Agree with her opinion? Disagree? We welcome your views. Learn about submitting your own commentary here.
This BBSNews article originally appeared on NMPolitics.net.